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November 03, 2022 6 min read

In this article:

What are omega-3 fatty acids and why are they important?
Types of omega-3 fatty acids(ALA, DHA, EPA)
Fish oil: Pros and cons
Algal oil: Pros and cons

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Why Are They Important?

An omega-3 fatty acid is an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). Omega-3s are a vital component of cell membranes throughout the body and are especially important for brain development in babies and growth in children.

  • Inflammation: Inflammation is tied to numerous diseases and chronic health conditions. Supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids was found to lower inflammation markers such as C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor.
  • Triglycerides: Eating fish can reduce triglyceride levels, positively impacting cardiovascular health. According to the American Heart Association, a recent study demonstrated that 4 grams a day of prescription omega-3 lowered triglyceride levels by 20-30%.

Omega-3 Lowers Triglyceride Levels

  • Cardiovascular disease: Although evidence on whether omega-3s can help prevent heart attacks has been inconclusive, EPA + DHA has been shown to decrease systolic blood pressure and reduce heart rate. In addition, EPA and DHA may stimulate blood circulation.
  • Cognitive aging and brain health: Fatty acids are crucial for proper neuronal and brain function. Recent research highlighted the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in enhancing nerve growth factors and improving cognitive function for those with cognitive decline and mild Alzheimer's disease.
  • Mental health: Strong evidence exists that PUFA in the form of omega-3s can help treat depression. This may be because they can help lower inflammation and promote positive changes in brain chemistry.

Beneficial Effects of Omega-3

Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids(ALA, DHA, EPA)

Essential omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant oils and fish oils. In nutrition terminology, "essential" doesn't just mean important: it signifies that the body cannot produce these substances on its own; we must consume them in our diet.

The three types of omega-3 are:

  1. DHA - docosahexaenoic acid
  2. EPA - eicosapentaenoic acid
  3. ALA - alpha-linolenic acid

DHA and EPA are found in phytoplankton and marine algae. Because fish eat these marine plants, the omega-3 fatty acids accumulate in their bodies. EPA and DHA food sources include cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, halibut, mussels, and other types of fish.

In addition, foods such as eggs, milk, yogurt, and infant formulas can be fortified with DHA or omega-3 fatty acids.

The other essential fatty acid, ALA, is found in plant oils. Examples of foods and oils containing ALA are linseed, flaxseed, chia, walnut, pecan, and hazelnut. Vegans have been eager to utilize ALA to obtain essential omega-3s because it can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, however the results may be limited.

As previously mentioned, omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means they have multiple double bonds in their carbon backbone. ALA, the parent fatty acid found in plants, has an 18-carbon chain which can be a building block for producing EPA and DHA. The body can use ALA to synthesize EPA, which has a 20-carbon chain, and then DHA, which has a 22-carbon chain.

However, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is unreliable and restricted. Some research has shown that ALA may increase EPA, but doesn't affect levels of DHA. Conversion rates also appear higher in women, probably due to higher estrogen levels. Because of the inconsistencies, one study concludes, "adequate intakes of preformed long-chain n-3 PUFA, in particular DHA, may be important for maintaining optimal tissue function."

That’s basically saying it's important to consume EPA and DHA through diet or supplementation; relying solely on ALA may not be enough. Absorption of omega-3 fatty acids is also affected by the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet and the ratio between the two.

Dangers of a Standard American Diet

Linoleic acid is the most common and shortest chain omega-6 fatty acid. We consume it in vegetable oils like palm, canola, corn, and soybean. People who eat a Standard American Diet (SAD) full of packaged, processed, and fried foods typically overconsume omega-6s.

This is bad news because an excessive ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 can lead to inflammation and disease. Researchers believe that humans evolved consuming a diet that had an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1. While the average modern diet supplies a ratio of 10:1 or higher, the recommended consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4:1 or lower.

The key takeaway is to be mindful of the balance of fatty acids you are consuming. You can approach the ideal ratio by limiting omega-6 oils in your diet and consuming adequate amounts of healthy omega-3s. The recommended DHA to EPA is a ratio of 2:1, which you'll find in these Vegan Omega-3 softgels.

Fish Oil: Pros and Cons

A CDC survey showed that omega-3 supplements are the third most commonly used supplement in the US across multiple age groups. Fish oil supplements are the most popular way to obtain omega-3s.

One of the major pros to taking fish oil is obtaining the recommended amount of EPA and DHA, because it can be challenging to eat 2-4 weekly servings of fatty fish, like sardines and anchovies. If you aren't getting an ideal amount of omega-3s from dietary sources alone, supplements can be helpful.

There are some drawbacks to fish oil supplements depending on how they are obtained and manufactured. Cons to fish oil can include:

  • Contaminants like mercury and other heavy metals may be present
  • Fish oil may be obtained through unsustainable fish farming practices
  • Some people are allergic to seafood, fish, or fish oil
  • Gastrointestinal side effects such as digestive discomfort, indigestion, fishy burps, and aftertaste

Amandean Vegan Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In addition, omega-3 supplements can be problematic if you take blood-thinning medications or are at risk for prostate cancer. Definitely consult a physician before taking supplements if either of those conditions applies to you.

Algal Oil: Pros and Cons

Fish are getting their omega-3 fatty acids from the marine plants they consume, and we can also get algae oil supplements straight from the source, instead of taking fish oil capsules.

Microscopic algae in fresh and saltwater are the source of omega-3 fats we find in fish. Microalgae is consumed by fish who are foragers or herbivores. Algae oil has been proven to increase blood levels of DHA.

Although less well known and more difficult to find, algae oil supplements have numerous benefits, including the following:

  • Lab-grown algae are grown in controlled conditions and free of environmental pollutants
  • A pure form of omega-3 with great bioavailability
  • A vegan source of DHA and EPA
  • Source of antioxidants
  • A sustainable, eco-friendly omega-3 source

Key Takeaways

Omega-3s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids made up of DHA, EPA, and ALA. Marine algae and phytoplankton are the original sources of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, so why not skip the middleman (the fish) and go straight to the source with an algal oil supplement instead. Marine algae-based omega-3 supplements have the ideal balance of EPA to DHA, which is lacking in other vegan sources of omega-3s that only contain ALA.

Stephanie Hodges, MS in Nutrition in Exercise Science

Summary Points:

Omega-3s are a vital component of cell membranes throughout the body and are especially important for brain development in babies and growth in children.

Strong evidence exists that PUFA in the form of omega-3s can help treat depression.

It's important to consume EPA and DHA through diet or supplementation; relying solely on ALA may not be enough.

The recommended DHA to EPA is a ratio of 2:1, which you'll find in these Vegan Omega-3 softgels.

Marine algae and phytoplankton are the original sources of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, so why not skip the middleman (the fish) and go straight to the source with an algal oil supplement instead.

References:

  1. Dietary Supplement Use Among Adults: United States, 2017–2018. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db399.htm
  2. Effect of Marine-Derived n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on C-Reactive Protein, Interleukin 6 and Tumor Necrosis Factor α: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3914936/
  3. Prescription omega-3 medications work for high triglycerides. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/08/19/prescription-omega3-medications-work-for-high-triglycerides-advisory-says
  4. Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid and Blood Pressure: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4054797/
  5. A Recent Update on the Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Alzheimer's Disease. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30084334/
  6. The efficacy and safety of nutrient supplements in the treatment of mental disorders: a meta‐review of meta‐analyses of randomized controlled trials. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24261532/
  7. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Retrieved Dec 6, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12442909/
  8. Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature. Retrieved Dec 3, 2021. From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24261532/



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